Maintaining high expectations for learners using EAL

Written by: Kamil Trzebiatowski | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

That a student uses English as an additional language should not be an excuse for lowering our expectations for learning and progress. Kamil Trzebiatowski considers some strategies and resources to ensure high expectations in your lessons

Maintaining high expectations for every pupil has long been perceived as a crucial aspect of learners’ education and can be linked to the Pygmalion Effect (Rosenthal, 1974) which refers to the influence that other people’s expectations have on achievement.

Indeed, the Department for Education’s Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011) requires all teachers in England to set high expectations to inspire, motivate and challenge pupils.

In the most recent Education Inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2019), the Quality of Education section requires education providers to have the same academic, technical or vocational ambitions “for almost all learners”.

Maintaining high expectations for learners using English as an additional language (EAL) is crucial if they are to reach their full academic potential; the English language barrier need not be the reason to lower expectations.

Learners need to be enabled to access the curriculum and offered support to develop English language proficiency in order to be successful at school (Strand & Hessel, 2018). This does not imply the “dumbing down” of content.

Instead, English language barriers can be removed so that learners can engage with the curriculum in ways similar to others, whether during remote learning or at school.

This article will look at strategies that can be used across the curriculum to facilitate the maintaining of high expectations for learners using EAL, serving to remove language barriers to accessing the curriculum and supporting language development.

Holding high expectations of these learners may be particularly important during this time: school closures will invariably lead to learning loss for many learners, but as Diana Sutton, director of The Bell Foundation, has reminded us, “EAL pupils will also experience a language learning loss” due to less, or lack of, exposure to English, putting them at a greater disadvantage and lessening their ability to access the curriculum (Sutton, 2020).

At this time teachers are operating in very difficult circumstances, most likely teaching pupils remotely under significant pressure. Parents are also struggling to combine working with supporting home learning. The strategies suggested below can be adapted for remote teaching and suggestions are provided as to how to do so.

The strategies and suggestions aim to facilitate teachers’ work with EAL learners and reduce workload as much as possible. This article explores three of the most useful EAL strategies. Readers will find many more on The Bell Foundation’s Great Ideas web pages.

Using the learner’s first language(s) and Translanguaging

Learners who use EAL are bilingual or multilingual. Since they have access to at least one language other than English and might already possess knowledge about aspects of the curriculum from previous schooling in another country(ies), they might be able to engage with the same topic in their first language or other languages at their disposal.

Although this might not be the case for all learners, for instance for refugees or where previous schooling has been disrupted, where possible, taking advantage of the learner’s knowledge of other languages can allow these learners to participate in the curriculum on the same cognitive and academic level as any other learner.

It is worth mentioning that while parents and families of learners using EAL have an important role to play supporting them with school work during the remote learning period, some might be more comfortable doing so using their home language(s).

“Translanguaging” is the term used to describe intentional practices intended to integrate two or more languages in order to develop learners’ multilingual repertoire and language awareness (Cenoz & Gorter, 2020). Here are some practical ideas for using translanguaging:

  • Use bilingual dictionaries: EAL learners could translate key words ahead of the lesson or use the dictionary to help them with more complex vocabulary when writing. For this, a teacher would simply need to present the learner with a list of key words for homework. There are some free online bilingual dictionaries: Google Translate, WordReference, and ProZ (see further information).
  • Monolingual online dictionaries in a variety of different languages are available from The Free Dictionary.
  • Watch a video in their first language ahead of the lesson to understand the topic to be studied or read an article online about it. Khan Academy has video lessons about many different topics in a variety of subjects, available in 30 languages. Teachers could provide their learners with a few questions to answer in a language of their choosing, thus preparing them to manage the content of the upcoming lesson.
  • If asked to write an essay or any longer piece of writing, learners using EAL could initially do so in their first language and later translate it into English.

When learners are using their first language, in which many (though not all) are already literate, there is no need to lower the cognitive demand. For instance, watching the Khan Academy video Wprowadzenie do magnetyzmu (Introduction to magnetism) will offer the same cognitive challenge – with the only exception being that the terms will be in Polish.

During remote education, learners might not have access to dictionaries, but teachers can utilise tools like Google Translate. This means that if teachers make any comments on learners’ work (e.g. on a Word document), pupils will be able to translate them into their first language.

A very useful tool is Voice Translator: if a learner does not understand the teacher’s English instructions, these can be written in English by the teacher, translated into the learner’s language, downloaded as an mp3 file, and shared with the learner.

Teachers should caution their learners not to use the translator for extended pieces of text as it is unlikely to be accurate. There is also a risk that learners might simply copy them without considering the language structures and vocabulary used, thus not developing their English skills. For the same reason, teachers are advised to strive for shorter, more concise sentences making successful translation more likely.

Another source of educational videos is, a free website with thousands of formal lectures on a variety of topics, most subtitled in a large number of languages.

Graphic organisers

Graphic organisers, sometimes referred to as key visuals, present information visually. Some examples of such organisers are Venn diagrams, bar charts, flow charts, cycles and matrices. They are useful for learners at any level of English language proficiency and allow them to understand relationships between different ideas, such as cause and effect. Here are some practical tips on how to use graphic organisers:

  • Learners can complete a blank graphic organiser such as the Questions-Cause-Effect one above. They could be provided with lists of words or phrases to place onto the blank organiser. The organiser could be partially completed to enable learners to focus on individual elements of language, increasing accessibility. Additionally, teachers can provide lists of connectives (e.g. due to and because for causes and therefore and thus for effects). Chunking sentences or paragraphs into separate smaller elements facilitates language acquisition for the learners while not simplifying the content or lowering the academic challenge.
  • Learners operating at higher bands of English language proficiency could do the opposite – present information contained within a piece of text as a graphic organiser. For instance, a piece of text about similarities and differences between different parts of the British coastline (geography) could be represented as a Venn diagram.

During remote learning, the easiest way to work with graphic organisers is by using the Microsoft Office suite: graphic organisers are available in “SmartArt” and can be added to any document. AWAPP is an online collaborative whiteboard, which allows two or more learners to work together on a graphic organiser (an image of which could be uploaded to the board and then shared with the teacher).

Substitution tables

There are times when teachers feel that their learners understand the content of a topic but are unable to write full sentences to demonstrate their knowledge. Substitution tables can help. These tables provide model sentences with a range of choices for learners to select from, using a set pattern, thus allowing learners to practise vocabulary and grammatical structures and maintain high cognitive challenge in relation to lesson content.

In the example above (from The Bell Foundation’s resource Friction game), learners can generate eight different sentences, allowing the teacher to check their knowledge, while at the same time providing an opportunity to rehearse the present simple tense as used in science and phrases denoting amount (hardly any, not much, a little, a lot of). Cognitive challenge as related to the content of the lesson remains high.

Such substitution tables are easily adaptable – for instance, words or phrases can be replaced with pictures or translations in the learner’s first language and words can be changed into gaps with learners asked to supply them in English.

All variations facilitate language rehearsal, which is of utmost importance in language learning, and when effectively designed offers learners using EAL support while maintaining high expectations.

When remote teaching, substitution tables can be designed in Microsoft Word and shared with learners. As substitution tables might be a completely new tool for learners, it is a good idea for a teacher to record a short video about how to make sentences. Substitution tables can be used to practise both writing and speaking; learners can record a series of sentences spoken using the table and share them as an mp3 with the teacher.

The Bell Foundation’s webinar Using substitution tables provides advice for practitioners on how to work with this useful tool. The one-hour webinar recording can still be viewed (see further information).


Maintaining high cognitive and academic expectations of learners using EAL is key to their academic achievement. Learners using EAL arrive with prior knowledge, which should be taken advantage of in the classroom, but can be masked by the English language barrier.

Using a variety of EAL strategies such as the three discussed above can help maintain academic challenge while also supporting English language development. Not being presented with simplified (or completely different) activities compared to the rest of the class can increase EAL learners’ motivation in lessons. Strategies such as substitution tables, translanguaging and the other ideas on our Great Ideas pages are well-suited for this goal, even during these challenging times of remote teaching.

  • Kamil Trzebiatowski is the digital resource developer at The Bell Foundation, a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education. Read his previous articles for SecEd, via

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